What is good gut health and why is it important?

by Graham Simpson, M.D.

Often referred to by medical professionals as “the body’s second brain”, the gut – and how healthy it is – can have a huge bearing on our overall health and wellbeing.The importance of good gut health

And to be clear upfront here, far from just having an impact on digestive issues, the balance of the bacteria in our gut has a part to play in everything from mood to memory to mental health to weight control to diseases such as diabetes.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

When your gut is healthy it sends regular signals to and from your brain relating to critical bodily functions of the immune system, vitamin and mineral absorbency, hormone regulation, and much more.

The gut’s ability to keep all of this in check, however, is dependent on the levels and types of bacteria that exist within it – which are primarily responsible for neutralising the toxic by-products that are a part of the digestive process, and aiding in the absorption of nutrients.

It is vital, therefore, that these bacteria are adequately balanced. Too much of one type and infections can occur, while an imbalance the other way can lead to the lining of the gut becoming over-absorbent – a condition known as leaky gut syndrome. Leaky gut (which I talk more about below) results in undigested food molecules, toxins and other forms of waste that normally cannot pass through the gut lining being absorbed into the bloodstream, and – as millions of suffers the world over can testify – the consequences can be severe. And very important to point out here that most autoimmune disease is due to  leaky gut.

The ability of the gut to function at its best is dependent on the levels and types of good bacteria that exists within it.

The good news however (and I always like to ensure we have some good news) is that the health of our gut is largely in our hands. With that being said, let’s now dive a bit deeper into the more common causes of gut complaints, and what we can do to keep our gut health in order.

What causes an unhealthy gut?

With literally trillions of bacteria and 100 trillion+ other microorganisms swimming around in our gut – but just 10 trillion human cells in our bodies – it’s good to remind ourselves that we are, in fact, only about 10% human, with bugs making up the rest of us.

So needless to say that in keeping that body healthy it’s essential to keep that gut healthy. And while it is no easy feat, there are a number of things we can do to take care of the gut, and in turn, take care of ourselves.

The main one is a topic close to my heart: Avoid processed foods at all cost. Packed with transfats, emulsifiers, sugars and other harmful additives, processed foods also do a great job of messing with the delicate microclimate of the gut.

Specifically, processed foods are known to play havoc with our microbiome – the cells that live within our intestine – which leads to a litany of medical conditions, including inflammation, insulin resistance, obesity and even diabetes. One ingredient found very often in processed foods – high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – is particularly brutal on the gut, upsetting its natural balance by feeding unhealthy bacteria.

What’s more, a very recent study published in the journal Autoimmune Disease highlighted a clear correlation between the amount of processed foods in the modern diet and the increase in autoimmune deficiencies as a result of leaky gut syndrome (as I mentioned above leaky gut and autoimmune are very connected).

Another all-too-common foodstuff that your gut will not thank you for is grains. One of the many problems with grains is that they contain high quantities of nutrient blockers – known as lectins. Once ingested, these lectins gravitate towards the sugar-containing cells within the gut that break down food. Over time, they attach themselves to the digestive lining, causing inflammation and then, ultimately, leaky gut.

It’s not just a poor diet that can lead to an unhealthy gut. Other lifestyle factors – in particular stress – can disrupt this delicate bacterial balance. When we endure periods of stress, our bodies release peptides called corticotrophin releasing factors (CRF). These CRF, while vital for the regulation of our stress response, can also have a potent effect on the gut, causing inflammation, sensitivity and increased permeability in the gut lining. Also a must add here when talking about balancing out stress levels: Get at least seven hours of sleep every night for good gut health.

Another cause worth a mention is one we would all do best not to ignore – alcohol. As we know, alcohol is really not good for anything, and when it comes to gut health this substance can go to work on the lining of the bowel, damaging the seals between cells and allowing potentially harmful substances to pass through.

And the final mention on my list for today is pharmaceuticals. Many, such as antacids, NSAIDs, antibiotics (especially antibiotics!), and a ton of other prescription and over-the-counter drugs are all toxic to the gut. So use with care, and of course only when needed.

How healthy is your gut

As I hinted at the outset, the consequences of an unhealthy gut can be far-reaching and severe, with the potential to impact just about every facet of your health. And so it goes without saying that we have to be vigilant in watching out for the warning signs of gut trouble.

One of the more obvious signs comes in the form of digestive issues such as excessive bloating, gas, and diarrhoea, which can all be caused by an excess of “bad” bacteria in the gut.

And if you are suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) on a regular basis, you should certainly speak to your doctor about it to carry out some tests, as it could be indicative of something more serious – or it could eventually lead to something more serious.

New research out of Hungary, for example, recently highlighted how increased permeability in the gut lining can often be localized to the colon – causing not only IBS, but also ulcerative colitis and even Crohn’s disease.

Regular bloating, gas, diarrhea or suffering from IBS are all hallmark signs of too much bad bacteria in the gut.

Outside of the digestive tract there are plenty of other areas of your body where poor gut health can take its toll – including your brain. According to the journal Neuro Endocrinology Letters, the inflammation caused by leaky gut leads to the release of what are known as pro-inflammatory cytokines – along with a cocktail of other chemicals – which are known to induce feelings of depression. And that’s not all when it comes to your cognitive and mental health. Indeed, poor gut health has also been linked to anxiety, ADHD, and poor memory function. (I suggest you read “Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain – for Life” by Dr. David Perlmutter for more information on this topic).

Gut health can also have a major impact on your skin health. Many studies over the years have shown a link between the growth of certain bacteria in the small intestine and skin conditions such as chronic eczema, acne and rosacea. In fact, one particular study found that these skin conditions were up to 10 times more prevalent in people with an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine than those with healthy levels.

And what about weight? It no doubt should come as no surprise to you that there is a direct connection before poor gut health and those excess pounds. For a closer look at the science behind it all, let’s take a look at some particularly interesting findings out of Sweden, where researchers at the University of Gothenburg recently found a link between intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and visceral fat, which is the body fat that we store within the abdominal cavity. Their research found that women with a higher indication of leaky gut also had higher visceral fat levels and larger waistlines.

A bit of a sidebar here but relevant to our topic today, and in particular in addressing the issue of gut health and weight and disease: I recently returned from Amsterdam where I visited Dr. Max Nieuwdorp, one of the leading microbiome specialists in the world, who is doing fecal microbiome transplants (FMT), taking feces from young healthy donors and putting it in overweight diabetic patients – with very good results. This is an exciting frontier for medicine.

Improving your gut health

Fortunately, for anyone out there experiencing issues like the ones above, there is a very simple method to improving your gut health known as the four R’s: Remove, Replace, Re-innoculate and Repair.

Start by removing any aggravators to the gut, such as foods you may have a sensitivity to. The easiest way to establish what foods you may be negatively reacting to is to visit your physician for food sensitivity testing – a practice I occasionally recommend.

Once you’ve removed what ails you, it’s time to replenish the gut with plenty of goodness such as plant fiber and the right vitamins and minerals to bring it back to optimum digestion. High fibre plant foods such as leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds are a great way to do this and can be eaten every day. And there are also plenty of probiotic foods such as garlic, lentils, beans, onions, and asparagus, which the healthy bacteria in our gut thrive on. Also keep in mind that the fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso soup are also loved by the healthy gut bacteria.

Next up we need to repopulate the good bacteria in our gut to restore a healthy balance. One great way is add some probiotic foods to the mix such as yogurt (plain Greek style is preferred) and soft cheese. Probiotic supplements are also a very effective way to speed things up here (you should get a minimum of the 50 billion cultures per capsule and keep them refrigerated).

Natural Greek yogurt, asparagus, garlic and soft cheese are among the best foods to consume in order to promote good bacteria in the gut.

Then we move on to perhaps the most vital stage – repair. When the gut is inflamed, the gut lining can become seriously damaged over time and it must be fully repaired to allow for proper absorption of vital minerals and nutrients. There are plenty of great foods that can help us do this. Think anything high in vitamin A, D and C (carrots, fish, leafy greens, eggs and citrus fruits, to name a few).

Final word

As I have probably made clear, food is really the main issue (accounting for about 70%) when it comes to maintaining good gut health – and good health in particular – so I’ll limit my advice to the above and not get into telling you how to better manage stress or what sort of level of alcohol consumption is acceptable. You know what to do there.

I do want you to get tested though if there are any indications that you may be suffering from poor health in this regard. Given the relatively unhealthy diets most of us have grown up on and probably still eat, the chances are that we could all do a lot to improve our gut health, and the first step on the path is to know where you stand.

Whenever I believe one of my clients is suffering from poor gut health, one of the tests I carry out, for example, is wheat and gluten sensitivity. Another important one involves taking a “selfie” of the client’s gut microbiome, which can reveal a great deal about the diseases the individual may be prone to getting.

Again, it’s usually just about always in our hands, so don’t forget that you are not at the mercy of genetics. And although the body is extremely complex and as such the world of medicine can appear rather confusing, the reality is that we can simplify things tremendously by staying as healthy as possible through good living. Prevention is always the best option, so keep the scales firmly tipped in your favor through good choices.


Graham-150x150About Dr. Simpson

Graham Simpson, M.D. is the Chief Medical Officer of West-Martin Longevity. He is also the Founder & Medical Director of the innovative Intelligent Health Center, Dubai, UAE.

Dr. Simpson graduated from the University of Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Emergency Medicine, and Age Management Medicine (A4M). He is a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) and is a licensed homeopath. Dr. Simpson has also taught as an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Nevada, Reno.

He is the author of WellMan (Live Longer by Controlling Inflammation); co-author of Spa Medicine with Dr. Stephen Sinatra; and the forthcoming Reversing CardioMetabolic Disease.

Dr. Simpson was the Founder of PrimalMD; the Founder of the Eternity Medicine Institute; Paleo4me; and the Inflamaging Physician Network. He is a Consultant to Cenegenics, Inc

He has practiced I.N.T.E.G.R.A.L. Health for many years and remains committed to delivering Proactive Health to physicians and clients around the world.

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